Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Battle For Your Data Center’s Brain

The complex ecosystem of symbiotic, technologic, silicon-based organisms that is your datacenter: it’s the epicenter for your business, your mission, and your interactions with the world. Your applications, your data, your infrastructure, and a non-trivial amount of your capital, all end up in the orthogonal confines of four walls, a raised floor, and ceiling snaked with assorted cable types. 

Your data center is populated with all manner of resources. But generally speaking, these resources can be categorized into the same three groups we’ve used for decades in IT: server, storage, and network. Maybe you’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when storage, as a discipline, was certainly not a peer to server and network with regard to complexity, criticality, and functionality. For many IT professionals, storage was just a remote disk attached to your server and network, a dedicated pool of capacity for a server with no open bays. An avoidance strategy for having to scale out to yet another Microsoft Exchange 5.5 server.

Today’s storage is markedly different. So different, in fact, that newcomers to the technology profession likely can’t imagine storage not being an active participant in not only the delivery of your data center’s services, but also in the management of said services. The elevation of storage from a simple resource to a first-class data center citizen means that a new revolution is underway: it’s the battle for the right to manage your data center.

Well, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic. It’s not that war has been declared for the right to manage your data center. Rather, it’s a grudge match to determine where the intelligence that’s needed to effectively manage your data center’s resources lives. When you see buzzwords that start with “Software-Defined” you know you’ve found a contender: software-defined networking, for example, is a play to apply intelligence to the data center through contemporary, sophisticated networking technologies; software-defined storage, on the other hand, attempts to apply intelligence by efficiently serving and storing your data, which is arguably the most important asset in your entire data center (except for the occasional human being that can be found staring at an old flat-panel monitor on a crash cart, cursing while listening to hold music for tech support). And we can’t overlook virtualization, which would certainly have been named “software-defined servers” if that tech had been introduced in 2011. Marketing types lump these technologies into the concept of the “software-defined data center.” But perhaps what’s really happening here is better named, “software-defined intelligence.”

Why Storage, and Why Now?
Chris Evans wrote a great article last month titled, “End-to-End Data Management.” He argues that data management needs to be raised up through the stack into application, not just relegated to the realm of the physical. And for the record, he is absolutely correct. But why are we only now making this realization? 

Because we’re finally coming to terms with the quantities of data that we’re generating. And the approach we’ve taken to managing data up to now simply cannot scale to the phonetically-improbable order of magnitude that obscures the true meaning of 1021.

For this reason, we demand that our storage solutions are more than just bit buckets with brushed bezels. We need storage that’s intelligent, that’s able to analyze its workload and not only report on its contents, but to generate metadata that informs our data retention policy. We need storage that automates the chore of defining storage performance levels and automatically promoting and evicting data between tiers.

As for why storage: consider how your data center looked 10 years ago, how it looks today, and how it will look 10 years from now. Like any other complex organism, your data center will likely see a total replacement of components, from switches to servers to SANs, perhaps twice in this twenty year period. Hardware breaks, becomes obsolete in function and fashion, and is readily replaced by the next revision. But your data is the constant in this equation. You may migrate data from one storage platform to another, but the data remains the same. Which is to say, we must stop treating data as just another resource to be managed, and start treating it for what it is: the digital representation of your business, mission, and research.

Managing the data center is comparatively easy when you consider the enormity of managing your data. Storage platforms will come and go. But the advent of intelligent data platforms will absolutely be the control point for data centers in near future.

NB: This post is part of the NexGen sponsored Tech Talk series and originally appeared on GestaltIT.com. For more information on this topic, please see the rest of the series HERE. To learn more about NexGen’s Architecture, please visit http://nexgenstorage.com/products/.